United States v. Edwards, 415 U.S. 800 (1974)

Fundamental Cases on the Fourth Amendment by Adam J. McKee

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question here is whether the Fourth Amendment should be extended to exclude from evidence certain clothing taken from respondent Edwards while he was in custody at the city jail approximately 10 hours after his arrest.

Shortly after 11 p. m. on May 31, 1970, respondent Edwards was lawfully arrested on the streets of Lebanon, Ohio, and charged with attempting to break into that city’s Post Office.  He was taken to the local jail and placed in a cell.  Contemporaneously or shortly thereafter, investigation at the scene revealed that the attempted entry had been made through a wooden window which apparently had been pried up with a pry bar, leaving paint chips on the window sill and wire mesh screen.  The next morning, trousers and a T-shirt were purchased for Edwards to substitute for the clothing which he had been wearing at the time of and since his arrest.  His clothing was then taken from him and held as evidence.  Examination of the clothing revealed paint chips matching the samples that had been taken from the window.  This evidence and his clothing were received at trial over Edwards’ objection that neither the clothing nor the results of its examination were admissible because the warrantless seizure of his clothing was invalid under the Fourth Amendment.

The Court of Appeals reversed.  Expressly disagreeing with two other Courts of Appeals, it held that although the arrest was lawful and probable cause existed to believe that paint chips would be discovered on respondent’s clothing, the warrantless seizure of the clothing carried out “after the administrative process and the mechanics of the arrest have come to a halt” was nevertheless unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.  We granted certiorari, and now conclude that the Fourth Amendment should not be extended to invalidate the search and seizure in the circumstances of this case.

The prevailing rule under the Fourth Amendment that searches and seizures may not be made without a warrant is subject to various exceptions.  One of them permits warrantless searches incident to custodial arrests, and has traditionally been justified by the reasonableness of searching for weapons, instruments of escape, and evidence of crime when a person is taken into official custody and lawfully detained.

It is also plain that searches and seizures that could be made on the spot at the time of arrest may legally be conducted later when the accused arrives at the place of detention.  If need be, Abel v. United States, 362 U. S. 217 (1960), settled this question.  There the defendant was arrested at his hotel, but the belongings taken with him to the place of detention were searched there.  In sustaining the search, the Court noted that a valid search of the property could have been made at the place of arrest and perceived little difference “…when the accused decides to take the property with him, for the search of it to occur instead at the first place of detention when the accused arrives there, especially as the search of property carried by an accused to the place of detention has additional justifications, similar to those which justify a search of the person of one who is arrested.”

The courts of appeals have followed this same rule, holding that both the person and the property in his immediate possession may be searched at the station house after the arrest has occurred at another place and if evidence of crime is discovered, it may be seized and admitted in evidence.  Nor is there any doubt that clothing or other belongings may be seized upon arrival of the accused at the place of detention and later subjected to laboratory analysis or that the test results are admissible at trial.

Conceding all this, the Court of Appeals in this case nevertheless held that a warrant is required where the search occurs after the administrative mechanics of arrest have been completed and the prisoner is incarcerated.  But even on these terms, it seems to us that the normal processes incident to arrest and custody had not been completed when Edwards was placed in his cell on the night of May 31.  With or without probable cause, the authorities were entitled at that point not only to search Edwards’ clothing but also to take it from him and keep it in official custody.  There was testimony that this was the standard practice in this city.  The police were also entitled to take from Edwards any evidence of the crime in his immediate possession, including his clothing.  And the Court of Appeals acknowledged that contemporaneously with or shortly after the time Edwards went to his cell, the police had probable cause to believe that the articles of clothing he wore were themselves material evidence of the crime for which he had been arrested.

But it was late at night; no substitute clothing was then available for Edwards to wear, and it would certainly have been unreasonable for the police to have stripped respondent of his clothing and left him exposed in his cell throughout the night.  When the substitutes were purchased the next morning, the clothing he had been wearing at the time of arrest was taken from him and subjected to laboratory analysis.  This was no more than taking from respondent the effects in his immediate possession that constituted evidence of crime.  This was and is a normal incident of a custodial arrest, and reasonable delay in effectuating it does not change the fact that Edwards was no more imposed upon than he could have been at the time and place of the arrest or immediately upon arrival at the place of detention.  The police did no more on June 1 than they were entitled to do incident to the usual custodial arrest and incarceration.

Other closely related considerations sustain the examination of the clothing in this case.  It must be remembered that on both May 31 and June 1 the police had lawful custody of Edwards and necessarily of the clothing he wore.  When it became apparent that the articles of clothing were evidence of the crime for which Edwards was being held, the police were entitled to take, examine, and preserve them for use as evidence, just as they are normally permitted to seize evidence of crime when it is lawfully encountered.  Surely, the clothes could have been brushed down and vacuumed while Edwards had them on in the cell, and it was similarly reasonable to take and examine them as the police did, particularly in view of the existence of probable cause linking the clothes to the crime.  Indeed, it is difficult to perceive what is unreasonable about the police’s examining and holding as evidence those personal effects of the accused that they already have in their lawful custody as the result of a lawful arrest.

In Cooper v. California, 386 U. S. 58 (1967), an accused had been arrested for a narcotics offense and his automobile impounded preparatory to institution of forfeiture proceedings.  The car was searched a week later without a warrant and evidence seized that was later introduced at the defendant’s criminal trial.  The warrantless search and seizure were sustained because they were “closely related to the reason petitioner was arrested, the reason his car had been impounded, and the reason it was being retained. . .  It would be unreasonable to hold that the police, having to retain the car in their custody for such a length of time, had no right, even for their own protection, to search it.”  It was no answer to say that the police could have obtained a search warrant, for the Court held the test to be, not whether it was reasonable to procure a search warrant, but whether the search itself was reasonable, which it was.  United States v. Caruso expresses similar views.  There, defendant’s clothes were not taken until six hours after his arrival at a place of detention.  The Court of Appeals properly held that no warrant was required:  “He and his clothes were constantly in custody from the moment of his arrest, and the inspection of his clothes and the holding of them for use in evidence were, under the circumstances, reasonable and proper.”

Caruso is typical of most cases in the courts of appeals that have long since concluded that once the accused is lawfully arrested and is in custody, the effects in his possession at the place of detention that were subject to search at the time and place of his arrest may lawfully be searched and seized without a warrant even though a substantial period of time has elapsed between the arrest and subsequent administrative processing, on the one hand, and the taking of the property for use as evidence, on the other. This is true where the clothing or effects are immediately seized upon arrival at the jail, held under the defendant’s name in the “property room” of the jail, and at a later time searched and taken for use at the subsequent criminal trial. The result is the same where the property is not physically taken from the defendant until sometime after his incarceration.

In upholding this search and seizure, we do not conclude that the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment is never applicable to postarrest seizures of the effects of an arrestee.  But we do think that the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit captured the essence of situations like this when it said in United States v. DeLeo:  “While the legal arrest of a person should not destroy the privacy of his premises, it does—for at least a reasonable time and to a reasonable extent— take his own privacy out of the realm of protection from police interest in weapons, means of escape, and evidence.”

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed. 

So ordered.

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